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An inspiring and practical talk from Sweaty Betty's VP (China), Lexie Morris

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The Business Confucius Institute at the University of Leeds welcomed staff, students and guests at Leeds University Business School and online on Wednesday 7 February for a guest lecture by China market specialist Lexie Morris.

This was a valuable opportunity to hear in-person from Sweaty Betty's Vice President (China) during a trip back to the UK for the Spring Festival holidays. After living and working in mainland China for almost 15 years she has plenty of insight to share, touching on personal experiences and broader themes in her engaging lecture about lessons she has learned in her career.

People seated in a large lecture theatre

Attendees enjoyed networking and refreshments in the café before the talk, greeted on arrival with guzheng music and Spring Festival decorations. The lively Q&A session after Lexie's lecture highlighted the broad personal experiences of people in the room, as they considered how to apply the lessons learned in their own career-planning and businesses.

Guzheng playing at lecture reception

Why do Western businesses fail so often in China?

A key question running through the talk was 'why do Western businesses fail so often in China?' Big names aren't immune! Displaying an array of well-known brand names on the screen, Lexie reeled off examples of China-business fails.

Lexie also learned first-hand from many cases she encountered during her time as Head of Retail and Consumer Goods, China, for the Department of International Trade. By the time she was advising UK businesses on 'making it' in China she had successfully built and sold her own bakery business there. Now tasked with supporting British companies on their market entry strategies, she was passionate about helping clients avoid the seemingly obvious pitfalls that so often scuppered Western businesses.

The networking issue

To introduce this point, Lexie got the whole audience up on their feet for an interactive test of their recognition of Western and Chinese CEOs.

Asked how many of the seven most valuable global tech companies they could identify, most attendees sat down once the number got up to six or seven. Faced with the founders of the seven most globally recognised Chinese companies, there weren't many people who could remain standing past one or two!

CEOs of top 7 Chinese companies

Lexie observed that the global media doesn't paint Chinese leaders as business superstars. Not only that, but Western business superstars don't have the equivalent level of contacts in China.

Two sides of the world, with huge economies in both, operating totally separate business social bubbles.

Product issues

In addition to the networking issue, Lexie explained that brands also face many systemic barriers to success. Product issues are one such problem.

Drawing from her experience to illustrate the importance of product localisation, product newness and hero products, Lexie gave insight into the approaches required to effectively target the Chinese consumer.

The formula for success in China

When the COVID pandemic brought new and unexpected advantages for some businesses, Lexie was approached by Sweaty Betty - which had benefitted from the boom in working out at home during lockdown.

She described how they ticked every box for her based on her understanding of what it takes to succeed in China:

  • Home business of scale and profitable.
  • Capital readily available.
  • Regular cycle of product newness and openness to product localisation.
  • Open and humble attitude from everyone running the business.
  • Strong, differentiated brand proposition or USP.

Describing the brand's growth over the past three years, Lexie demonstrated what 'making it' in China can look like when the right commercial opportunity comes up!

Bridging cultures

Reflecting on her career, Lexie sees her ability to navigate the cross-cultural gap between the UK and China as a thread that connects everything together. Unconscious bias exists on both sides and a clashing of perspectives and approaches can derail a relationship. Lexie's experiences showed that it is a valuable skills to truly understand how differently things can be interpreted in the UK and China.

Language skills

Lexie also made a strong case for the importance of language skills in building effective relationships and countering the potential for misunderstanding and distrust.

Your Chinese needs to be excellent.

The experiences she shared throughout the talk highlighted the importance of influence within a company, for example to win the investment that is required for China efforts to be a success. Impeccable language skills are key to achieve this.

Looking to the future

Lexie plans to bring this cross-cultural understanding to more company boardrooms, where she believes that with her experience she can bring a diversity of thought that is much-needed in UK-China relationships.

We are confident that with this lecture she has also helped to inspire the next generation of business leaders!

Professor Lynda Song, Business Confucius Institute Director, said:

Lexie's talk was practical and inspiring, strongly supporting her message about the importance of developing and valuing intercultural awareness. Thank you Lexie for sharing your time and expertise with our audience at the University of Leeds!

Wordcloud shows words attendees chose to describe the talk. Insightful and inspiring and the largest words.

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